How Jerry Brown Got Californians to Raise Their Taxes and Save Their State
Political veterans who know Brown’s history of wrangling with the Clintons during his 1992 presidential bid and in the ensuing years can imagine that the governor might relish taking on presumed front-runner Hillary Clinton. And those close to Brown say he does not see age as an impediment to continued public service. But the governor routinely dismisses talk of another presidential run, responding to a press inquiry about 2016: “No, that’s not in the cards. Unfortunately.”
It is telling that Brown added the word “unfortunately.” No one doubts that he ran for the presidency in 1976, 1980 and 1992 because he thought he could do a better job of running the country than anyone else. And you do not have to talk long with friends, political associates and observers of Brown to hear claims that, whatever he says in public, he’s positioning himself for the presidency. “Every move he’s making is the move of a presidential candidate. It’s almost a blueprint,” says Ralph Nader, who has ripped Brown for failing to rescind the medical-malpractice damages cap, but who likes the idea of a strong contender stepping up to thwart what he decries as a Clinton “coronation.”
For now, Brown is focusing on re-election. Under California’s open primary system, where candidates from all parties compete in a single June primary and then the top two finishers proceed to the November election, the governor is likely to face a Republican challenger this fall. The GOP establishment likes Neel Kashkari, a former Bush administration Treasury aide whose role in drafting unpopular bank-bailout schemes has left him with baggage. Kashkari could lose out to State Representative Tim Donnelly, who, the Associated Press notes, “is on probation for carrying a loaded gun into an airport, is accused of race-baiting and is best known for his opposition to gun control and any relaxation of immigration laws.” Neither Republican poses a challenge like the one Brown faced in 2010, when he squared off against former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman’s big name and gigantic bankroll.
Brown’s more thought-provoking challenges this year come from his left. California’s venerable Peace and Freedom Party is backing antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan, who criticizes Brown for failing to spend his political capital and budget surpluses to achieve dramatic reductions in homelessness and long-term unemployment—and who counters his big spending on mass incarceration by outlining a plan to begin dismantling the prison-industrial complex. Brown should be pressured on those issues, as he should on concerns raised by Green candidate Luis Rodriguez, whose detailed platform includes a call for a complete ban on fracking and a sharp critique of the governor for his inadequate response to the plight of farmworkers.
Unlike many politicians, Brown responds well to challenges. He hit the skids after losing the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination. Popular culture ridiculed him—not as the “Governor Moonbeam” caricature of the 1970s, but as such a has-been that the 1995 film Jade featured a fictional California governor warning a prosecutor that if he didn’t drop a case “you’ll have as much of a future here as Jerry Brown.” (The prosecutor’s reply: “Who’s Jerry Brown?”) Brown went back to basics, plotting a comeback that began with eight years as mayor of Oakland, a tenure that continues to inform his enthusiasm for local control. In 2006, he was elected as California’s attorney general, and in 2010 he reclaimed the governorship. DeMoro thinks that after a big 2014 re-election, Brown could be recognized as the Democrat best prepared for 2016. “He’s positioned better than anyone in the country to run for president, aside from [Hillary] Clinton,” she argued. “And with Clinton it’s all this expectation. Brown has actually earned it. Who better than Jerry Brown?”
Hayden is skeptical. He has real doubts that Brown, having lost three presidential bids, would give up a strong position in California to mount an uphill challenge. “He has to recognize that he can do big things in California and leverage things to influence the nation and the world,” the longtime champion of state-based innovation adds, noting that Brown could make California a global leader in responding to the daunting threat of climate change. Having forged relationships with foreign governments, and fully conscious of the consumer power and economic influence of a state that is the world’s eighth-largest economy (bigger than Italy’s or Russia’s), Brown has already suggested that he sees the governorship as a position with as much potential as the presidency to reframe global debates. “Climate change is the great unifier. California is the great pivot. And Jerry is the great leader,” says Hayden. “So plan your next four years accordingly.”
Hayden’s counsel is well advised. In four years, Brown has adroitly positioned himself as a successful alternative to the politics of fear peddled by Republicans. But he has never been satisfied simply to be better than his opponents. Jerry Brown points out that “we live in unprecedented times,” and no one should doubt his determination to continue playing an unprecedented role in shaping them.